Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My Life in Congress


The vast right-wing conspiracy is back


Some of Bill Clinton's most unhinged foes are flinging wild charges at Obama. This time, they're better organized

By Joe Conason

NewsWearily familiar as he is with the "vast right-wing conspiracy," Bill Clinton says the network that sought to destroy him and his wife, Hillary, remains malignant as ever, yet lacks the might of a decade ago. "It's not as strong as it was, because America's changed," he told David Gregory on "Meet the Press." "But it's as virulent as it was."

Whether Clinton is correct about the current condition of his old adversaries can best be measured by the passage or wreckage of healthcare reform and the outcome of next year's congressional midterm elections -- the same early milestones that marked the beginning of Clinton's tumultuous White House tenure. Perhaps Barack Obama will be saved by political demography and decent intentions, as the former president tried to assure Gregory; perhaps he and his administration will prove less vulnerable to intrigue and propaganda and less flawed than their predecessors.

What Obama should anticipate -- indeed, what he is already encountering -- is a cascade of slurs, threats and rhetorical violence that reanimates all of the worst themes of the bad old days. That wave will inevitably damage the president and his hopes for change, even if the majority of Americans is less receptive to right-wing messages than they once were. The greasy machinery once used to grind Clinton down has grown larger and more sophisticated by orders of magnitude, from Fox News Channel (which did not exist during his first term) to all of the conservative digital outlets that enable echoing and organizing on a truly vast scale.

Back when videotapes still had to be circulated by mail order, the Clinton-hunters did a brisk business with "The Clinton Chronicles," a "documentary" alleging that as governor of Arkansas he oversaw an enormous, unchecked racketeering enterprise that encompassed international bank fraud, cocaine smuggling and multiple murders, facilitated by a kind of backwoods dictatorship. Nothing resembling that remarkable work of extremist art, once promoted by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, has appeared so far in the crusade against Obama -- but that doesn't mean nothing is in the works. Many of the same organizations and operatives behind the original Clinton smears are still active and some have amassed considerable wealth and influence over the intervening decade.


Latest sign of the apocalypse

McDonald's restaurants to open at the Louvre

It is a move which has managed to get both France's art lovers and gastronomes choking on their Gitanes.

McDonald's logoLovers of France's two great symbols of cultural exception – its haute cuisine and fine art – are aghast at plans to open a McDonald's restaurant and McCafĂ© in the Louvre museum next month.

America's fast food temple is celebrating its 30th anniversary in France with a coup -the opening of its 1,142nd Gallic outlet a few yards from the entrance to the country's Mecca of high art and the world's most visited museum.

The chain faces a groundswell of discontent among museum staff, many already unhappy about the Louvre lending its name and works to a multi-million pound museum project in Abu Dhabi.

"This is the last straw," said one art historian working at the Louvre, who declined to be named. "This is the pinnacle of exhausting consumerism, deficient gastronomy and very unpleasant odours in the context of a museum," he told the Daily Telegraph.

Didier Rykner, head of The Art Tribune website found the idea "shocking".

"I'm not against eating in a museum but McDonald's is hardly the height of gastronomy," he said, adding that it was a worrying mixture of art and consumerism. "Today McDonald's, tomorrow low-cost clothes shops," he said.

McDonald's confirmed that a restaurant will open next month. The Louvre confirmed it will be positioned in the underground approach to the Louvre, known as the Carrousel du Louvre.

The stonewalled gallery was opened in 1993, five years after the famous Louvre pyramid. The Carrousel's initial remit stipulated that its "commercial activities will be regulated and restricted to cultural or tourist activities".

The Louvre has the right to protest against boutiques it considers fail to meet such criteria. However, the museum told the Daily Telegraph it had agreed to a "quality" McCafé and a McDonald's in place by the end of the year, which it said was "is in line with the museum's image".

"The Louvre welcomes the fact that the entirety of visitors and customers, French or foreign, can enjoy such a rich and varied restaurant offer, whether in the museum area or gallery," the museum said in a statement.

The McDonald's would represent the "American" segment " of a new "food court", and would be situated "among (other) world cuisines and coffee shops," it wrote.

It added that the franchise owner "has taken the utmost care in ensuring the quality of the project, both in culinary and aesthetic terms".


ElBaradei says nuclear Israel number one threat to Mideast


    TEHRAN, Oct. 4 (Xinhua) -- Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei said Sunday that "Israel is number one threat to Middle East" with its nuclear arms, the official IRNA news agency reported.

    At a joint press conference with Iran's Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi in Tehran, ElBaradei brought Israel under spotlight and said that the Tel Aviv regime has refused to allow inspections into its nuclear installations for 30years, the report said.

    "Israel is the number one threat to the Middle East given the nuclear arms it possesses," ElBaradei was quoted as saying.

    Israel is widely assumed to have nuclear capabilities, although it refuses to confirm or deny the allegation.

    "This (possession of nuclear arms) was the cause for some proper measures to gain access to its (Israel's) power plants ... and the U.S. president has done some positive measures for the inspections to happen," said ElBaradei.

    ElBaradei arrived in Iran Saturday for talks with Iranian officials over Tehran's nuclear program.


Great time for US consumers: America is on sale

My Way


NEW YORK (AP) - There has never been a better time to be a consumer. America is on sale.

The Great Recession has caused massive job losses and hardship for millions, but it has also fostered a shoppers' paradise. Anyone who still has the means to spend can find unheard of deals.

Prices on everything from clothes to coffee to cat food are dropping, some faster than they have in half a century. Items rarely discounted - like Tiffany engagements rings - are now. The two biggest purchases most people make - homes and new cars - are selling at steep price reductions.

"This is the new normal," says Donald Keprta, president of Dominick's, a supermarket chain in the Midwest, which just cut prices by as much as 30 percent on thousands of items. "We aren't going back."

Consumers like Karen Wilmes, a mother of two in Hopkinton, R.I., relish the steals. During a recent trip to Shaw's Supermarkets, she bought a basketful of goods, including Eggo waffles, Kleenex tissues and Betty Crocker cake mix. The retail price: $63.89. Wilmes paid $7.31 by buying items on sale and using coupons.

"The deals out there are unbelievable," says Wilmes, 36, who writes the Frugal Rhode Island Mama blog, which tracks local and national bargains. "We can put the money I save toward something else."

And she's doing just that, but only when she can find another deal. Wilmes and her husband recently bought a Samsung television from Best Buy's Web site for $1,299, about $300 less than she found at other stores. She also got free delivery and another $13 back from ebates.com, which receives commissions from online retailers for directing customers their way.

What's happening now has been building for years. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. introduced "every-day low prices" many years ago. Amazon.com redefined the idea of bargain prices during the late 1990s when it helped introduce online shopping. After the 2001 recession, automakers introduced zero-percent financing to boost sales. McDonald's "Dollar Meals" made fast food even cheaper.

But until the Great Recession came along, consumers hadn't seen anything yet.


Corporate Offense

Tom Toles

Lawyer’s motion admits Birthers seen as ‘batsh*t crazy’


By Daniel Tencer

The de facto leader of the "Birther" movement has launched an all-out attack against a federal judge in Georgia, accusing him of colluding with the US attorney general, comparing him to racist Southern judges of prior eras, and alleging "pervasive bias" in his rulings against her.

And in one passage from her filing, Lawyer Orly Taitz says the term "birther" is a "pejorative appellation ... often coupled with more colorful epithets such as 'batshit crazy,'" and denies that her client in the lawsuit is part of any political movement.

Taitz had filed a lawsuit last month with the US District Court in Columbus, Georgia, on behalf of a US Army captain who challenged her deployment orders to Iraq on the grounds that she can't be sent there on President Obama's orders because he was not born in the United States and is therefore not entitled to be president.

Last month, Judge Clay Land tossed out Taitz's lawsuit, filed on behalf of Army Capt. Connie Rhodes, dismissing it and its claim that President Obama wasn't born in the United States as "frivolous." The judge also gave Taitz several weeks to explain why he shouldn't fine her $10,000 for contempt of court.

Shortly after the courtroom defeat, Capt. Rhodes sent a letter to Judge Land saying she no longer wanted to be represented by Taitz in the matter.

In a motion filed with the court on Friday, Taitz asked Judge Land to recuse himself from the case because of "personal contacts and financial stakes he may have with President Barack Obama's administration," reports the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

And in what is yet another bizarre twist to the case, Taitz filed an affidavit from a witness who claimed to have seen US Attorney General Eric Holder enter a coffee shop in Columbus on a day when the Birther case was to be heard in court.

"I looked up and immediately recognized an individual entering and approaching the serving counter, due to his well know[n] TV displayed distinguishing features: his trim upper lip mustache, not large of stature and general olive complexion," one Robert D. Douglas stated in the affidavit.

Tellingly, the affidavit does not definitively state the person Douglas saw was Holder.

But that was enough for Taitz to conclude, in her court filing, that this amounted to "circumstantial evidence suggesting that, in fact Judge Land was influenced by prior association or direct ex-parte communications with Attorney General Eric Holder, acting as agent on behalf of de facto President Obama."

As the Ledger-Enquirer pointed out, Judge Land is an appointee of former President George W. Bush.


Norway 'the best place to live'

British Broadcasting Corporation

Norwegian children
Children in Norway can look forward to a high quality of life

Norway is the best place in the world to live while Niger is the least desirable, according to an annual report by the United Nations.

The 182 countries were ranked according to the quality of life their citizens experienced.

Criteria examined included life expectancy, literacy rates, school enrolment and country economies.

However the UN human development index used data collected in 2007 - before the global economic crisis.


The UN Development Programme said the index highlighted the grave disparities between rich and poor countries.

Norway's consistently high rating for desirable living standards, is, in large part, the result of the discovery of offshore oil and gas deposits in the late 1960s.

Niger, however, is a drought-prone country which has sometimes struggled to feed its people.

Other countries to reach the top spots were Australia and Iceland.

However, living standards in Iceland have changed since the data was collected, as it was one of the countries worst hit by the credit crunch.

The 2008 crisis exposed the Icelandic economy's dependence on the banking sector, leaving it particularly vulnerable to collapse. The country's three major banks were nationalised and Iceland had to seek international support in order to stay afloat.

Human Development Report Office deputy director Eva Jespersen told the BBC News website that although the country's now-reduced gross domestic product figure would "pull Iceland down" next year, its high life expectancy rates and commitment to education would "cushion the decline to some degree".

Afghanistan was regarded the second least desirable place to live, just below Sierra Leone in third from bottom place.

The index shows that life expectancy in Niger was 50 years - approximately 30 years shorter than for those living in Norway.

For every dollar earned per person in Niger, $85 was earned in Norway.


What's for tea? Amazing pictures of the polar bear who took an interest in the menu on Arctic ship

By Daily Mail Reporter

A group of wildlife enthusiasts were looking forward to their lunch during an expedition to the Arctic island of Svalbard.

But they soon discovered a hungry polar bear was also rather keen to try their cauliflower soup.

The giant predator poked his head through the open porthole into the kitchen of the ship, which had weighed anchor so the passengers could enjoy the fabulous icy landscape.

polar bear

Anybody home? A polar bear pokes his head through the ship's kitchen window during a lunch stop by Svalbard

polar bear

Polar bears are the largest land based carnivores and treat all animals as potential prey

Enlarge   A Polar Bear wanders away

Defeated: The polar bear wanders away after failing to secure a quick and easy lunch

polar bear

Peckish: The bear gets a whiff of the cauliflower soup cooking in the galley

He stayed by the boat for another couple of hours and even stood on his hind legs to better investigate any scavenging potential.

The incredible shots were taken by wildlife photographer Andy Rouse, who led an expedition on the M/S Stockholm.

Will California become America's first failed state?

Los Angeles, 2009: California may be the eighth largest economy in the world, but its state staff are being paid in IOUs, unemployment is at its highest in 70 years, and teachers are on hunger strike. So what has gone so catastrophically wrong?

by Paul Harris

Patients without medical insurance wait for treatment

Patients without medical insurance wait for treatment in the Forum, a music arena in Inglewood, Los Angeles. The 1,500 free places were filled by 4am. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

California has a special place in the American psyche. It is the Golden State: a playground of the rich and famous with perfect weather. It symbolises a lifestyle of sunshine, swimming pools and the Hollywood dream factory.

But the state that was once held up as the epitome of the boundless opportunities of America has collapsed. From its politics to its economy to its environment and way of life, California is like a patient on life support. At the start of summer the state government was so deeply in debt that it began to issue IOUs instead of wages. Its unemployment rate has soared to more than 12%, the highest figure in 70 years. Desperate to pay off a crippling budget deficit, California is slashing spending in education and healthcare, laying off vast numbers of workers and forcing others to take unpaid leave. In a state made up of sprawling suburbs the collapse of the housing bubble has impoverished millions and kicked tens of thousands of families out of their homes. Its political system is locked in paralysis and the two-term rule of former movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen as a disaster – his approval ratings having sunk to levels that would make George W Bush blush. The crisis is so deep that Professor Kevin Starr, who has written an acclaimed history of the state, recently declared: "California is on the verge of becoming the first failed state in America."

Outside the Forum in Inglewood, near downtown Los Angeles, California has already failed. The scene is reminiscent of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, as crowds of impoverished citizens stand or lie aimlessly on the hot tarmac of the centre's car park. It is 10am, and most have already been here for hours. They have come for free healthcare: a travelling medical and dental clinic has set up shop in the Forum (which usually hosts rock concerts) and thousands of the poor, the uninsured and the down-on-their-luck have driven for miles to be here.

The queue began forming at 1am. By 4am, the 1,500 spaces were already full and people were being turned away. On the floor of the Forum, root-canal surgeries are taking place. People are ferried in on cushions, hauled out of decrepit cars. Sitting propped up against a lamp post, waiting for her number to be called, is Debbie Tuua, 33. It is her birthday, but she has taken a day off work to bring her elderly parents to the Forum, and they have driven through the night to get here. They wait in a car as the heat of the day begins to rise. "It is awful for them, but what choice do we have?" Tuua says. "I have no other way to get care to them."

Yet California is currently cutting healthcare, slashing the "Healthy Families" programme that helped an estimated one million of its poorest children. Los Angeles now has a poverty rate of 20%. Other cities across the state, such as Fresno and Modesto, have jobless rates that rival Detroit's. In order to pass its state budget, California's government has had to agree to a deal that cuts billions of dollars from education and sacks 60,000 state employees. Some teachers have launched a hunger strike in protest. California's education system has become so poor so quickly that it is now effectively failing its future workforce. The percentage of 19-year-olds at college in the state dropped from 43% to 30% between 1996 and 2004, one of the highest falls ever recorded for any developed world economy. California's schools are ranked 47th out of 50 in the nation. Its governm


Quelle Surprise! New York Times Fails to Call Private Equity Looting by Its Proper Name

The New York Times tonight features a generally very good piece, "Buyout Firms Profited as a Company's Debt Soared," by Julie Creswell that falls short in one important respect: it fails to call a prevalent and destructive practice of private equity firms by its proper name.

PE firms in the risk-blind environment preceding the credit crunch got into the habit of producing good to stellar returns by modifying their usual formula. The traditional model was to buy companies with a ton of debt, then improving their bottom line by a combination of partial asset stripping (selling off ancillary operations), cost cutting, and once a blue moon, actually doing something to improve operational performance. Then the company would be sold, either privately, usually to a corporation, or taken public.

But the PE firms found a much easier approach: just pile on more and more debt, and pay themselves a special dividend. No need to do any work, just keep borrowing until you had recouped your investment and then some. And that way you did not need to care how the company fared. If you destroyed the business, it was of no mind to you and your investors. Other saps were left holding the carcass.

George Akerlof and Paul Romer called that activity looting in a famous 1993 paper and depicted it as criminal:

Our theoretical analysis shows that an economic underground can come to life if firms have an incentive to go broke for profit at society's expense (to loot) instead of to go for broke (to gamble on success). Bankruptcy for profit will occur if poor accounting, lax regulation, or low penalties for abuse give owners an incentive to pay themselves more than their firms are worth and then default on their debt obligations….

Our description of a looting strategy amounts to a sophisticated version of having a limited liability corporation borrow money, pay it into the private account of the owner, and then default on its debt…

First, limited liability gives the owners of a corporation the potential to exploit lenders. Second, if debt contracts let this happen, owners will intentionally drive a solvent firm bankrupt. Third, when the owners of a firm drive it bankrupt, they can cause great social harm, just as looters in a riot cause total losses that are far greater than the private gains they capture.

This version wasn't sophisticated. It was done in broad daylight. The Akerlof/Romer article describes how looting occurred (among other places) in Chile and in the US during the savings and loan crisis. But the New York Times article is robbed of its punch by its inability (due to Grey Lady conventions) or reluctance to call this form of chicanery what it is, a fraud perpetrated on society as a whole.


You take Sarah Palin seriously?

O’Connor takes ’subtle shot’ at Roberts-led Supreme Court

By Daniel Tencer

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor says her rulings on the nation's highest court are being "dismantled" by a more right-leaning court.

Speaking at the College of William and Mary's annual Supreme Court Preview, the former justice told her audience that she's "disappointed" with the direction the court has taken.

O'Connor was considered to be a centrist on the court. She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court bench. O'Connor retired in 2006, and President George W. Bush replaced her with Justice Samuel Alito, who is considered to be more conservative in his rulings.

Asked how she felt about the court overturning some of her decisions, O'Connor said: "What would you feel? I'd be a little bit disappointed. If you think you've been helpful, and then it's dismantled, you think, 'Oh, dear.' But life goes on. It's not always positive."

It was a rare moment of candor for a Supreme Court alum. Justices, current or former, rarely comment publicly on the court's political leanings.


The demise of the dollar

In a graphic illustration of the new world order, Arab states have launched secret moves with China, Russia and France to stop using the US currency for oil trading

By Robert Fisk

Iran announced late last month that its foreign currency reserves would henceforth be held in euros rather than dollars.In the most profound financial change in recent Middle East history, Gulf Arabs are planning – along with China, Russia, Japan and France – to end dollar dealings for oil, moving instead to a basket of currencies including the Japanese yen and Chinese yuan, the euro, gold and a new, unified currency planned for nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council, including Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar.

Secret meetings have already been held by finance ministers and central bank governors in Russia, China, Japan and Brazil to work on the scheme, which will mean that oil will no longer be priced in dollars.

The plans, confirmed to The Independent by both Gulf Arab and Chinese banking sources in Hong Kong, may help to explain the sudden rise in gold prices, but it also augurs an extraordinary transition from dollar markets within nine years.

The Americans, who are aware the meetings have taken place – although they have not discovered the details – are sure to fight this international cabal which will include hitherto loyal allies Japan and the Gulf Arabs. Against the background to these currency meetings, Sun Bigan, China's former special envoy to the Middle East, has warned there is a risk of deepening divisions between China and the US over influence and oil in the Middle East. "Bilateral quarrels and clashes are unavoidable," he told the Asia and Africa Review. "We cannot lower vigilance against hostility in the Middle East over energy interests and security."

This sounds like a dangerous prediction of a future economic war between the US and China over Middle East oil – yet again turning the region's conflicts into a battle for great power supremacy.


This is the money you could save...